Leica M9 rangefinder camera
The money shot
Review For anyone in the business of photography Leica has always been synonymous with photographic excellence and Magnum -style photojournalism. With its M-series, the German manufacturer has, since 1954, produced one of the most iconic and better performing 35mm systems, mastering unparalleled image quality in such inconspicuous and elegant bodies.
No frills, full-frame finesse: Leica's M9
In 2006 Leica began attempts to bring this classic model into the digital era, but its first revamp, the M8 , had serious flaws, since remedied, and its sensor had a 1.33 crop factor. Yet with the M9 it appears Leica has found a true heir to the greatness of its M cameras. Surpassing all expectations, Leica has succeeded in mounting a full frame, 18Mp sensor into the tiny ‘M’ series body. The staggering body-only price of £5,000 reflects this achievement.
In an era of breathtaking technological innovation, automation and sheer sophistication, the M9 is something of a quiet revolution. Devoid of any feature other than the bare essentials needed to deliver exceptional image quality, the M9 is simply the smallest, lightest 35mm-equivalent full-frame cameras around. The key advantage of this camera is that it is not a reflex but a rangefinder. In an SLR the image is viewed directly "through the lens" thanks to a mirror system. This is necessarily bulky and the clatter of the moving mirror mechanism is noisy too.
A rangefinder focusing mechanism is based on the principle of geometrical triangulation. By overlapping two images of the same subject with the aid of a calibrated wheel, the photographer can achieve the correct focus. In practise, you simply turn the lens until the two images of the target subject become one in the viewfinder. Eliminating the mirror also reduces the distance between the lens and the shutter plane. The result is a smaller and lighter camera with quieter shutter release, reduced vibrations and better optical performance.
If it wasn’t for the rear display the M9 could at first glance easily be mistaken for a film camera. The body has a classic, almost retro look made of magnesium alloy and brass. From the moment you hold it in your hand the all-tough metal case gives you the sense of its superior built quality and durability. Despite a lack of a grip the curved sides make it really comfortable to hold while the old-fashioned raised shutter release and shutter release speed dial have natural ergonomics.
Rangefinder focusing still allows for Interchangeable lenses
The design is simple and functional. At the front of the top plate we find the three windows necessary for the rangefinder focusing system: the distance meter-viewing window, which provides the bright secondary image superimposed in the small metering square in the centre of the frame; the illumination window, which supplies ambient light for the bright-line frames indicating the viewing area of each separate lens and the viewfinder window, which provides the main image.
The only other elements on the top plate are the shutter release, incorporating a single, continuous or self-timer switch selector, and the speed dial. The latter offers speeds ranging from 8seconds to 1/4000 of a second and includes Bulb and Aperture Priority options. The rear of the camera presents a 2.5in LCD monitor with five dedicated buttons on the left – Play, Delete, ISO, Info and Set – and a Menu button on the top right corner. Also on the right of the monitor there is a navpad and dial that is used to delve into menus, select options, browse or zoom in and out of images.
The low-res LCD panel is the only major disappointment
The full-frame, 18Mp sensor is what mostly sets the M9 apart from its digital predecessors but there are at least three important improvements on the M8 that are worth mentioning. The M8 had an abnormal sensitivity to infrared that translated into a magenta cast on certain black surfaces. To resolve the issue, owners of the M8 are obliged to mount IR filters on the lens. The M9 has found a better solution by adding an IR filter on the sensor itself.
Also the M9 supports uncompressed (14-bit) DNG image files in a 16-bit workflow, against the 8-bit DNG files of the M8. Finally, while the M9 can still recognise a lens from the 6-bit coding engraved on it, it now allows you to manually select the lens type. This means that the M9 can now utilise lenses from Leica’s impressive and vast array of optics.
The LCD screen was one of the few disappointments of this camera. Although quite bright, at 230,000 pixels this is an inexplicably low resolution for a camera at this level. While no doubt a consequence of image size, it is also painfully slow when zooming in during playback. This results in a pixellated image lingering on for several seconds before getting to full resolution.
The layout and contents of the menu instead are among the most intelligent and user-friendly I have encountered. The available options are stripped down to photographically relevant and useful features only, so the camera is incredibly easy and swift to set up. The limited range of the features stands out against the unique flexibility of some of the settings. For example, it’s the only camera I’m aware of with an Auto ISO that can be configured according to the lens in use. So simple, but a pure stroke of genius and something the likes of Canon and Nikon should swiftly copy.
Simplicity can work wonders for creativity
The M9 is uncompromising. There is no mumbo jumbo about this camera. No funk, no superfluous marketing ingredients. Yet what is offered is all functionally essential. This return to the basics is a breath of fresh air. Deprived of all ‘intelligent’ modes, never-used effects and long, complicated menus you can concentrate on the art of taking pictures with renewed freedom.
Monochrome and Night Images
With the exception of the semi-automatic aperture priority mode, the M9 is essentially a manual camera. Noticeably, there is no auto-focus facility. Unless you grew up with one, the rangefinder focusing system can take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it is surprisingly fast and accurate and opens up windows of creative possibilities.
Quiet in operation and no viewing interruption either
The viewfinder is, in fact, much larger than that of any SLR, as it shows all the area surrounding the actual frame. As mentioned earlier, the area captured by a lens is highlighted by bright lines within the viewfinder, there’s no masking. This means that the photographer can focus on a frame while still observing what’s happening in the surrounding area just outside that frame.
As there’s no SLR mirror return and consequent viewing interruption, the photographer can anticipate the action and choose the most significant moment in ways that are not possible in reflex cameras. This characteristic, together with the discreet dimensions and a quiet shutter release, understandably makes rangefinder cameras popular among photojournalists.
The image quality of the M9 is difficult to match even for big DSLR beasts like the Nikon D3 or the Canon EOS 5D MkII . The pictures, which look pretty dull on the diminutive back display, come to life on the computer screen and show off a beautiful richness of colour, crispness and contrast.
Although there is no in-camera optimization of highlights and shadows, the M9 has an excellent dynamic range and smooth tonal transition. What’s even better is that thanks to the lack of an anti-alias filter on the sensor the images don’t seem to need any sharpening at all; they’re good to go straight out of the camera.
Auto options are few and far between
In line with its minimal approach Leica provides only one centre-weighted metering system, which measures the light reflected off a white dot in the middle of the shutter blades that have now been tinted in shades of grey and white for increased accuracy. The system works perfectly in manual mode, but suffers from a slight over-exposing of the highlights in Aperture Priority mode.
The M9 has a sensitivity range between 160 and 2500 ISO, plus a Pull80, which works by manipulating a 160 ISO exposure to obtain the look of an 80 ISO shot. I was pleasantly impressed with the M9 noise performance. Despite not having ultra high-speed options my test showed very good results across its ISO range.
A full-frame sensor, multiple lenses but no DSLR bulk
Noise only starts appearing at 1600 ISO but it is still beautifully controlled and images have a smooth look and good level of detail. At 2500 ISO there is certainly some fuzziness in the shadows and overall noise becomes more visible. Still, the M9 manages to keep colours pretty much consistent throughout the entire ISO range.
Sports, fashion and wildlife photographers would find the M9’s 2fps continuous shooting speed unacceptable but they are not the target market for this camera. However, in normal shooting, there is almost no delay between shutter release and image capture, reinforcing the reportage nature of this camera.
Leica lenses are always state of the art, blissfully free from almost all optical aberrations, elegantly designed and incredibly sharp – current M-series range here . The Summicron-M 35mm f/2 ASPH I tested the M9 with is all of the above. It is a fast, high contrast, middle-range wide angle, which is wonderfully small and compact for its focal length. With a focusing range of 0.7m to infinity, it is not suitable for close-up detail shots but in other respects proved to be a very versatile lens.
With its large price tag and basic photographic features this camera will not appeal to all photographers. But considering it is all hand-made and it can mount the world’s best available optics, the cost is not outrageous. Thanks to its rangefinder system and purist approach the Leica M9 delivers a truly unique photographic experience. Currently, it is surely one of the greatest digital cameras ever produced and is certainly one I would give my right arm to own. ®
Catherine Monfils  is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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